Updated: Nov 5, 2019
Melanie Joy's concept of carnism is hampered by a flawed theory of ideology. Vegans and animal advocates should take notice.
Melanie Joy is a popular author, Harvard-educated psychologist and social psychology professor, non-profit leader and animal advocate. In the last two decades, Joy has worked tirelessly to promote social change in human-animal relations.
Joy is best known for coining and popularising the concept of carnism.
In Part One of "Fleshing Out Carnism", I reviewed Melanie Joy's new book Powerarchy (2019). I began to consider the way in which Joy's concept of carnism, the apparent ideology and belief system the underpins the consumption of animals, influences her understanding of power.
The argument to be continued in Part Two will be that Joy's analysis of carnism as an ideology is limited by repeated distortions of the science and theories of social psychology that have led to a body of work that, stimulating and thought-provoking, is also imprecise and misleading. Part Two of "Fleshing Out Carnism" will offer a comprehensive review of the concept of carnism and address some of the next steps that animal advocates and vegans can take to address this critique and develop some positive politics.
An Ideology Named Carnism
In Part One of "Fleshing Out Carnism", I traced how Joy envisages the conceptualisation of powerarchy and carnism to be part of a liberating ‘vegan praxis’. As we learned, the important question we always need to ask about liberation is: 'does the naming and understanding of this invisible mechanism offer the key to its destruction?' (Higgins 2018). For Joy, the answer seems to be a visible ‘yes!’.
What is carnism, this powerful invisible mechanism that Joy has named? And how did Joy discover it? How was carnism conceptualised as a phenomenon from the evidence, or ‘fleshed’ out?
In an interview, Joy explained this 'discovery' as the result of her PhD research:
So I interviewed butchers and meat eaters, and I found everyone had inconsistent attitudes toward animals. They were uncomfortable with the idea of hurting domestic animals. I found there was a psychological mechanism that caused them to disconnect from what they were doing. That’s when I understood that its an ideology. I named that ideology Carnism. It’s the system that allows us to do that.
This is a standard account of the development of the carnism concept. Joy's dissertation, "Psychic Numbing and Meat Consumption: The Psychology of Carnism" (2003), claimed to have discovered the 'particular defense mechanisms consistent with the concept of carnistic numbing'. The thesis used the term carnism that Joy coined in 2001. It introduced a pastiche of a well-known phenomenon of ‘psychic numbing’, elaborating it in the context of a phenomenon of eating animals and producing meat.
Methodologically, the thesis makes it arguably difficult to claim a 'discovery' of a new psychological phenomenon. The small sample size of 24 adults, some of whom were butchers and all of whom were meat eaters, and the semi-structured interviews, mixed methods analysis makes it unclear how the empirical evidence of the thesis as presented justified a label change for psychic numbing, a well-documented psychological phenomenon. The thesis did not seem to make it clear how the concept of carnism or the discoveries it involved made for 'reevaluating long-standing assumptions about the interaction of human and nonhuman animals and the common practice of meat consumption'. Of course, it’s not unusual to have such limitations in dissertations and in peer-reviewed research.
The limitations and arguable methodological flaws of the PhD thesis were swept aside when Joy popularised in 2009 the term carnism in Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism (2009).
Why We Love Dogs became a book that shaped media conversations and led to one of the most popular TedX talks of the decade. Part of the breakthrough success of Joy’s book and speaking commitments was the way that Joy's communication of the concept of carnism was so measured and appealing. Its apparent backing by a body of research and appeals to self-help psychology, stood out to non-carnists and vegans alike.
Closer analysis of Joy's research reveals that the conceptualisation of carnism is arguably based on some serious flaws. The conceptualisation of carnism can be described as imprecise and problematic, and even more so as it is based on a dominant ideology thesis we have shown in Part One of "Fleshing Out Carnism" to be flawed. Without refinement, carnism encourages nonstrategic ways of communicating social change in ways that clearly clash with Joy's apparent intentions in her wider work as an animal advocate.
In Why We Love Dogs (2009), Joy drew from social psychology to define meat and animal eating as a belief system that becomes pathological, dysfunctional or violent psychology in various different ways. There is a measure of caution in Joy’s initial approach, but even in Why We Love Dogs, the primary way this belief is claimed to be a pathological and dysfunctional cognitive phenomenon is through the concept of ideology.
We eat animals without thinking about what we are doing and why because the belief system that underlies this behavior is invisible. This invisible belief system is what I call carnism.
Joy's statements in the book are noticeably contradictory at times, as they swing between describing meat eating as a choice and at others as an automatic, conditioned response. 'Carnists eat meat not because they need to,’ Joy explains, ‘but because they choose to, and choices always stem from beliefs.' (29) Carnism, Joy explains, is 'invisible' that conditions choices for a reason: 'It's because carnism is a particular type of belief system, an ideology, and it's also a particular type of ideology, one that is especially resistant to scrutiny.' (29)
The concept of dominant ideology appears when Joy introduces the idea of an ‘entrenched ideology’. Joy argues that that carnism is an entrenched ideology, a fixed set of ideas portrayed as a normal given: 'When an ideology is entrenched, it is essentially invisible.' (31) Proof that the ideology is 'invisible' is also 'the reason carnism has not been named until now'. (31)
The confusion between cause and evidence appears to be Joy's argument for why carnism is an invisible ideology, but Joy suggests only a few more ways in which carnism is evidently invisible: because eating animals has been portrayed as natural and normal, so much of industrial agriculture is hidden, and cognitive defences filter out information.
Interestingly, by developing this theory of an ‘entrenched’ ideology, Joy is touching on facts of functionalist sociology that could help better describe and even explain the function of meat and animal eating in society, but chooses to claim that dietary practice is psycho-ideological in its root manifestations rather than determined even here by various social, cultural, political and historical circumstances.
Joy is correct to point out the way in which the 'majority' of the society is not free of ideology. However, this is where our acceptance of empirical evidence and political values may shape our understanding of what ideology is, and how it effects dominant and subordinate classes: 'We tend to view the mainstream way of life as a reflection of universal values. Yet what we consider normal is, in fact, nothing more than the beliefs and behaviors of the majority' (Joy 2009: 31).
Ideologies are, as Joy points out in the 2009 book, 'a shared set of beliefs, as well as the practices that reflect these beliefs'. (29) If feminism can be an ideology, so too can - and Joy never points this out - veganism be an ideology. But rather than a set of beliefs that accompany political action, Joy claims that there is such a thing as a dominant ideology or an entrenched, common culture, both of which we saw, in a strong claim, were flawed concepts, where they could be useful for analysis in a weak claim.
The dominant ideology concept appears in the wake of Why We Love Dogs (2009), perhaps due to the success of reaching a popular audience that valued this concept or popularising the concept in feminism and social justice politics.
In interviews following the work, Joy began describing carnism as a dominant ideology as in interviews like this one: ‘These oppressive and dominant belief systems condition people to act against their core values of compassion and justice and to disconnect from their natural empathy.’
After Why We Love Dogs (2009), Joy stopped returning to her discussion of cognitive defenses such as 'objectification, deindividualization, and dichotomization'. Joy had claimed that these 'defenses are actually normal psychological processes that become defensive distortions when used excessively, as they must be in order to keep carnism intact.' (117).
Almost all defenses including confirmation bias or social conformity are nonetheless 'normal psychological processes'. There is also little or no evidence that they are more pathological or even more symptomatic in carnists as opposed to vegans.
Joy's use of the dominant ideology concept risks supporting the thesis that those who hold the ideology that has received institutionalisation and wide adoption are in some ways missing critical faculties, pathological, or brainwashed, and that there are dominant and subordinate classes, and that the former incorporate the latter, or else the effects on the different classes can be safely ignored. One obvious problem with this thesis is that it assumes that only a master liberator, the theorist, holds the keys to challenging a master ideology through their own, homegrown diagnosis.
In Joy's work, there is a recurring vagueness in the explanation of dominant and subordinate classes that lends to some gross simplifications that at times mirror more classic theories of ideology.
One example is that in Why We Eat Dogs the media becomes a mythic entity designed to 'bolster carnism by acting as a direct channel from the ideology to the consumer' (103). The lack of any analysis or evidence for such claims is startling, particularly as the degree to which media reflects or can show a variety of ways of engaging with dominant ideologies, or even if there are such things, are the subject of strong debate in media studies.
Joy's theory of carnism appears bolstered less by evidence than by a 'vernacular media critique', as Charles R. Acland puts it in a study of subliminal messaging theories (Acland 2012).
It is when the concept carnism functions as a normative concept that its use is it at its weakest in terms of evidence, but this is where the concept has arguably been adopted in its most popular setting. Carnism acts as a social norm according to Joy, and is therefore not only descriptive but explanatory and prescriptive.
It is are common argument that norms are 'socially constructed' (105), but Joy claims further that meat eaters live according to a norm they never challenged and are in fact conditioned by: 'Most people who eat meat have no idea that they're behaving in accordance with the tenets of a system that has defined many of their values, preferences, and behaviors.' (106). Joy offers no evidence to support this claim, or why the degree to which meat eaters live according to the tenets of a system is any different when it comes to vegans or anyone else.
Joy’s diagnosis of the dominant ideology of carnism has taken different forms that have changed over the years, but in Why We Love Dogs (2009), Joy draws on a concept from cognitive behavioural therapy, schema: 'A schema is a psychological framework that shapes--and is shaped by--our beliefs, ideas, perceptions, and experiences, and it automatically organizes and interprets incoming information' (14).
Joy even claims that this 'automatic' mental construct 'classifies animals as edible or inedible'. In 2009, there was no rigorous evidence that a schema can be said to function in this way; although schema therapy was being used to treat personality disorders and trauma, a more recent review of schema therapy in 2017 has pointed to the lack of formal analytical studies or rigorous evidence for this therapy or its theory in any other clinical setting.
It is unclear then what evidence Joy refers to explain that, 'We aren't born with our schemas; they are constructed. Our schemas have evolved out of a highly structured belief system.' It seems unfortunately a pattern in Joy's work to take psychological concepts from clinical settings and, despite the low quality of evidence, apply them to describe, if not explain, large portions of social behaviour such as animal and meat eating and the whole worldview that it is claimed causes it.
Joy claims that carnism is a system that conditions us to lose our empathy and our compassion, and to eat animals, oblivious to their pain: 'The primary tool of the system is psychic numbing.'(19) Joy is here transforming well-known psychological responses into the wiring of the matrix. It is also unclear how a system can use a tool: what is the relationship between transforming people into products of the system, and power? And how does this happen?
Carnism is ‘a violent ideology, because it is literally organized around physical violence’ (33). By Joy's logic, however, it difficult to understand how any other ideology is not organized around physical violence. It is not the scale, the degree, or the social impact of this violence that appears to particularly matter; for Joy it is enough that there is a meat industry that pursues a 'profit margin'.
In her select pathologisation of violence, Joy does not seem to have considered that there is also a plant industry that feeds animals for slaughter and that even vegan food kills animals to plant and harvest its products and turn a profit. This is a point, skirting the nirvana fallacy, that has been made by writers whom Joy might label neo-carnists, Simon Fairlie, Meat: A Benign Extravagance (2011) and On Eating Meat: the truth about its production and the ethics of eating it (2019).
Joy claims further that 'violent ideologies have a special set of defenses that enable humane people to support inhumane practices and to not even realize what they do.' But there are many areas of life that would then be casually ideological if someone believing in it was unconscious about violence. This claim is not supported by empirical evidence.
There is very little evidence that people who eat animal products believe that they are not causing any violence. People may 'override their conscience' as by analogy soldiers are taught to do in war, but that does not mean they don't know what they do due to 'carnistic defenses' (40), just that their social environment conditions may influence them and they may also have a number of strategies to reduce their complicity or affective share in the problem.
Joy provocatively labels a section in her book ‘Conditioned Killers’ (82), a section that assumes that becoming acclimatised to violence has an ideological basis in carnism (82). Joy even claims that there is such a thing as 'internalized carnism', and one that 'compels us to participate in our own coercion' (116). For Joy, carnism denominates a dietary ideology which, unlike veganism and vegetarianism, states that eating meat is normal, natural, and necessary (Joy 2010; see 2.2.3 f).
This kind of ideology of 'normal, natural, and necessary' is applied to other forms of food, too, something that Joy does not point out. It's normal, natural, and necessary to eat non-GMO food, apparently, or organic food, and it's 'normal, natural, and necessary' for vegans to eat plants, even though plant farming is not without its millions of deaths. These 3Ns expose some of the common justifications for animal consumption, but they do little else to show how normative values might be claimed to determine decisions. For Joy, the lack of this evidence and explanation is not a problem: the role of naming carnism is, apparently, the best way to defeat these 3Ns because of its explanatory and norm-dispelling power. Naming carnism is a ‘first step in deconstructing meat’ and it requires ‘exposing the principles and practices of a system that has since its inception been in hiding’ (2010: 21). An important aspect of carnism is that ‘[w]e don’t see meat eating as we do vegetarianism—as a choice, based on a set of assumptions about animals, our world, and ourselves. Rather, we see it as a given, the “natural” thing to do […] This invisible belief system is what I call carnism’ (ibid.: 29).
The assumption that carnism is a hidden belief system is belied by the fact that it can be named, which suggests that Joy's carnism is a kind of act of linguistic activism, much less a scientific enquiry.
Before Joy's thesis was completed, Joy was proclaiming the power of naming:
By naming the belief system which underlies the acts of meat production and consumption we are better able to acknowledge that slaughtering nonhuman animals for human consumption is not a given but a choice; a choice that is based upon an ideology in which the domination and exploitation of other animals is considered a natural human privilege. (Joy 2001).
We have seen in Part One of "Fleshing Out Carnism" how second wave feminist assumptions included the dominant ideology thesis. There is often a liberation argument that accompanies this thesis: that just by naming an invisible, dominant ideology, we can defeat it.
Unfortunately, the assumption of ideology as an invisible system (invisible for whom?) leads to an idea that certain chosen individuals we can out-think the system, and the vagueness about dominant and subordinate classes, and impacts, aids this assumption.
By illuminating the invisible norms that force us to eat meat, and perhaps other animal products (although that is not clear in Joy’s argument), we can suddenly make an autonomous decision: ‘we have the power to choose a different path: we have the opportunity to make our choices freely, without the psychological constraints of a covert and coercive system’ (2010: 144).
Unfortunately the tendency here is to locate the root of all social life and material reality in people's heads. If speciesism is 'a complex of institutions, discourses, and affects' (Joy and 2014, 20), for the sake of analysis alone we should not deny the complex nature of the object of investigation that Joy calls carnism.
Instead, too often Joy gives us a dramatic fiction rather than a solid explication of a concept. Underpinning this drama of Joy’s theory is the saga of the return of the autonomous, emancipated liberal individual that mirrors the theorist who has been ‘unplugged’, deprogrammed. This is a cold war inspired fiction that is best left in fiction, or in films like The Matrix.
The Carnistic Matrix
In Vox this year Joy published her forecast of the future, "Eating meat will be considered unthinkable to many 50 years from now", and began describing being 'unplugged' from the 'Carnistic Matrix, a machine that had had total control over your mind'. The idea of the carnistic matrix has been maintained by Joy as an analogy of animal consumption ever since 2009. If anything, the analogy has become ever more sensational every time Joy has used it.
Vox’s publication of this piece on "Eating meat" seemed to mark their engagement with the term carnism. In a follow up, a podcast with Melanie Joy conducted by Ezra Klein provided further dissemination of the concept with some qualifications. As an evidence-based journal, the Vox team likely understands the evidence from social sciences like politics that the dominant ideology thesis does not withstand the evidence.
The carnistic matrix has continued to have a strong afterlife following the 2009 book. There are not too many other conclusions to be had from Joy’s Vox piece in 2019, some ten years later, that carnism as an ideology is nothing other than that mass mind-control, a pseudoscientific cold war-era theory, is real. The Matrix analogy works to describe how meat eating is a kind of virtual reality with complete control over our minds, and that the 'real world' is seen by those who no longer eat meat.
'Carnism', Joy surmised in 2009, 'is a social system, a social matrix. But it is also a psychological system, a system of thought, an internal matrix. It is a matrix within the Matrix. And just as the social matrix is set up to maintain the gap in our consciousness, so, too, is the psychological matrix.' (Joy 2009: 131) Joy imagines that defeating the 'carnistic matrix' involves unplugging ourselves from society and overcoming our defenses.
Joy's theory of carnism leads to a presentation of some pieties as a kind of corrective to the matrix, the idea of ‘collective witnessing’. If mass brainwashing seems to be the danger of the carnistic matrix, ‘mass witnessing’ is, supposedly, the ‘the single biggest threat to carnism, the entire system is organized around preventing this process.' There is little evidence that 'mass witnessing' on its own poses any kind of effective corrective to violence; we live in times when images are beamed and witnessed across the world and no correlation has been found with the reduction of the number of carnists.
Joy's unfortunate tendency to make unsupportable claims and assume that psychological changes create collective change happens time and again in her writing. Characterising the work as social psychology is wide of the mark. Another concept Joy uses is 'mass dissociation' (Joy 2009: 140). While dissociation is clearly a well-documented psychological response and is, as Joy points out, categorised as adaptive and maladaptive. Of course, this categorisation depends on the clinical diagnosis.
The term mass dissociation is also no longer used in psychology, because it has an unfortunate association with crowd psychology and the propaganda wars of the twentieth-century. To use the term is to fall as we have pointed out before into pseudoscience: we may as well say hysteria, mass conditioning, brainwashing, mass subliminal messaging or mind control.
Precision is important when we discuss these terms, and Joy's casual italicisation of dissociation is not enough to avoid some popular associations that fundamentally mischaracterise psychological evidence and theories. In Why We Eat Dogs (2009), Joy had already floated the analogies between violent systems she would work into Powerarchy (2019):
Joy once again returns to the analogy of The Matrix in the book Powerarchy (2019) to explain how 'powerarchies coerce (and sometimes force) people into following the dictates of oppressive systems they don't even know exist, into acting against their core moral values.' The analogy with this once popular film The Matrix is, of course, simply another way to add colour to the idea that such things exist as mass dissociation or selective, collective cognitive dissonance. It seems like fortunate news for Joy that another film in The Matrix series is being made as I write these words. The Matrix seems to be a clever way to refer to the popular theory of brainwashing without having to introduce an obviously pseudoscientific theory. Perhaps such analogies may give us the illusion we are explaining power, when we may also be distorting the distributed nature of power. By this logic and standard of evidence, however, it is difficult to understand the difference between an entrenched ideology and any other.
The simplications that Joy has introduced and then frequently justified with the authority of a social psychologist mean that the nuances in her message are likely lost for most readers. In Vox, Joy's words are speaking to vegans who want an easy explanation for why their passionate denunciation of their family social practices may provoke defensiveness: 'the matrix they’re still plugged into causes them to feel defensive of their right to eat meat, eggs, and dairy, and also to perceive you as biased for challenging the biases of the dominant culture they’re immersed in.'
Vegans, especially newly converted ones, may find this writing a powerful vindication of their experience. The simplifications and pseudoscientific explanations will likely slot into the background or seem an accurate and adequate explanation for why so many people grow up believing animals are edible and that it is nice, natural, necessary, and normal to eat and consume animals.
Joy even provides something of a psychological deprogramming manual for vegans to use to deprogram the brainwashed or, at least, offer them the red pill. We can already see the many vegan campaigns that have taken off from there. The trouble is, it is doubtful that this communication strategy works. It is targeted at early converted vegans and assumes that people will become less brainwashed just by being told they are brainwashed. It sacrifices curiosity and doubt for the sake of pseudoscientific concepts and fixed assumptions. The internet is also rife with this red pill style communication, which has been most successfully co-opted by anti-feminism.
Joy does not appear to intend to completely base a vegan message on unplugging from carnistic matrix: it appears that the analogy is a useful descriptive device that, unfortunately, touches on some explanatory elements in the direction given to strategic action.
Joy’s book Strategic Action for Animals: A Handbook on Strategic Movement Building, Organizing, and Activism for Animal Liberation (2008), published the year before Why We Love Dogs (2009), in fact provides something of a corrective to ineffective vegan organising and communicating, although red pill strategies in particular do not seem to be on Joy’s radar and they are introduced after the first book that Joy published.
It is clear that Joy is aware of the need for veganism to continually question itself and its relation to power, to avoid making audiences defensive, and adopt careful communication strategies.
Joy has written very eloquently about the need for a process in veganism that elevates activism or internal movement conflicts to a broad awareness and acceptance on the need to collaborate over how we move, as Joy's co-director at Beyond Carnism, Tobias Leenaert may put it, to a vegan world. This shows a more nuanced and researched understanding of social change theory and non-violent communication techniques.
Many vegans reading Joy’s words on the carnistic matrix may understand that any hurt they cause to others is not based on anything specific that they are doing, but is simply related to their escape of the dominant culture. The intention may not be Joy's, but the result of all but a very nuanced and filtered reading of Joy’s writing is that any behaviour a vegan undertakes is free of responsibility to an old reality because they have been liberated.
What is lost in such a common reading of liberation is the empathy with the victim that Joy is also trying to evoke: it is not just animals who are victims of the carnistic system or 'machine', she appears to suggest, but also brainwashed meat eaters. Frequently, however, such useful comments appear to go unsaid or unwritten in the project of making power visible.
Joy has claimed repeatedly, including in Powerarchy, that carnism is the ‘opposite’ of veganism, and that as an ‘ideology that conditions people to eat flesh and other products of certain animals’, carnism is ‘a subideology of speciesism’ and ‘must remain stronger than veganism'. One of the assumption that passes through readers here may be that as soon as carnism is reduced, people will all be vegans without a powerarchy.
Joy appears to be sensitive to the kind of 'pathologizing of choices based on compassion for animals' (Joy 2005: 114), but appears not to have resisted pathologizing people to respond to any choices that do not appear to be based on compassion for animals.
Appear is the key word here, because the basis for choices that do not demonstrate compassion or animals can be most lazily labelled as nonvegan. This would be to risk a pathologizing that mirrors group membership discrimination. In Powerarchy and elsewhere, Joy has warned against taking on the powerachy by internalising its structures. Pathologizing the enemies of vegans, the opposites, seems to do just that.
Joy's conceptualisation of carnism, as an opposite image of veganism, is problematic and unevidenced. This binary approach is repeated in Joy's failure to consider the complex, relational nature of power that worth more than matrix analogies help us understand. This failure of explanation and limitation on Joy’s books has serious repercussions, such as protecting the theorisation of powerarchy and carnism from empirical falsifiability.
Some arguments for and against carnism
In concepts like carnism and also powerarchy, Joy appears to be seeking what is considered an ethical use of psychology that 'challenges the status quo' and alters social values and norms (Joy 2005: 107), but whether this is an empirical endeavour as well - and it is more than arguably possible to be both - is questionable.
Other scholars who have used the term carnism have not found it particularly suited to an causal analysis of the normalisation of nonhuman animals as food. Arcari (2017a, 2017b) covers important parts of production in her research but mainly focuses on the discourses on carnism.
Following from her research on the enduring normalisation of nonhuman animals as food, she urges critical analysts to focus on ‘the material infrastructures, competencies, and primarily meanings that support’ (2017b: 46) carnism and make visible ‘non-human animals as actors/agents’ (ibid.) as well as ‘the normative practices and associated elements of which they are a part’ (ibid.)
Even scholars who have embraced the concept and are seeking to study normative materialism take a more critical approach of Joy’s social psychology, much as Steffen Hirth qualifies Joy’s argument in a dissertation that claims that individualism should make way for a carnism of the build environment:
carnism is not only in people’s heads—psychological—but also embedded into the materiality and the spatiotemporal economic organisation of our foodscapes, i.e. restaurants, supermarkets, farms, media, and popular culture. (Hirth 2019: 46).
We might consider carnism to be a 'descriptive concept with a normative import' (Gilbert and Desaulniers 2013). Veganism, just like carnism, fits the description of an ideology if we understand it as a ‘shared set of beliefs, as well as the practices that reflect these beliefs' (Joy 2010: 29), and the most useful characteristic of the term carnism is that it avoids the physio-biological concepts of omnivore or carnivore.
Another characteristic is much more arguable, that carnism has brought attention to an 'indivisible ideology'. Carnism functions in this way as a normative concept that shapes a politics of disclosure and confession. As Joy writes:
Contemporary carnism is organized around extensive violence. This level of violence is necessary in order to slaughter enough animals for the meat industry to maintain its current profit margin. The violence of carnism is such that most people are unwilling to witness it, and those who do can become seriously distraught.' (Joy 2010, p. 32).
While this is certainly true, it is difficult not to consider any contemporary lifestyle as not 'organized around extensive violence'. Even plant farming, which vegans maintain for their necessary food or plant based meat producers for their 'current profit margin', is beset by the necessity to slaughter animals to ensure harvests. Anyone seeing the number of birds slaughtered for food may also be 'seriously distraught', other than using this unfortunate fact as a reason for why meat is not at all times perfectly unethical.
It is in this way that carnism unfortunately has the propensity to become less a critical than a dogmatic concept. Gilbert and Desaulniers, in their sympathetic introduction to the term, offer an important elaboration of Joy's concept:
carnism does not refer to a clear-cut and monolithic ideology. American carnism is not the same as the French or Chinese manifestations of this ideology. Moreover, if carnism and veganism are opposite ideologies, they also stand on a continuum with neocarnism and vegetarianism between the two end. Therefore it is possible to be more or less carnist.
These qualifications of the concept appear to have been adopted by Joy, too, although not consistently, if we judge from this year’s writings in Powerarchy and the Vox and a number of other interviews. If it is possible to be 'more or less' carnist, perhaps this ideology is not so invisible as it is perceived to be. The nuance of this psychological perception of carnism is lost as soon as it becomes confused with a normative, relational and explanatory concept. It is also more or less a diagnostic concept to describe neocarnism (Joy 2010).
Joy’s arguments about carnism and the need to address bias in research does some support in the field of animal-society studies or human-animal relations: 'Taking animal–society connections seriously raises a variety of new questions for sociologists, and in some respects challenges scholars to consider the extent to which their theoretical and methodological approaches need to be reconsidered.' (York and Longo 2015: 2). The question is how far do we take this reconsidering? Does it included rejecting the scientific orientation?
Joy’s organisation, Beyond Carnism, has created a research database on that is useful to access when considering the evidence base for carnism. Carnism.org is surprisingly light of research on carnism, because it is a concept that sociologists do not appear to have adopted on a great scale. Noticeably, there is also little or no research on ideology per se included in the database.
The claim that carnism conditions people to eat certain animals (Joy 2001, 2010) has not been tested thoroughly in any empirical manner. A mixture of social, economic, and psychological factors do drive meat and animal production consumption. Our consumption of animals is a complex social problem.
As an example, a study before the coining of carnism by Mary Zey and Wm. Alex McIntosh of 400 Texas women found that, in the case of beef, normative influences are more predictive than attitudinal influences of intentions to eat animal products. However, the normative aspect of this preferred to taking account of norms, so that women shopped with the preferences of their family in mind, and there are a number of other factors (Zey and McIntosh 1992) that research continues to identify.
In Joy’s work, the rationalisation strategies she discusses as the “Three Ns of Justification” (see Joy, 2010, pp. 96–97) seem to be the key to any empirical validity. Joy believes that these strategies are inculcated through socialisation processes, institutions and organised media that all tell us that eating meat is natural, that it is necessary for our survival, and that it is normal.
Joy provided only a limited qualitative study of these 3Ns, and as recently as 2015 there were 'almost no systematic, quantitative research in support of the 3Ns as prevalent meat-eating justifications', and no study in relation to wider issues in animal-human relationships (Piazza et. al. 2015). The so-called 4Ns, with niceness or meat tastiness included, was invented by scholars inspired by Joy's 3Ns and has had some limited empirical testing (Piazza et. al. 2015).
In their study, Piazza et. al. note the similarities with Rothgerber’s (2013) Meat-Eating Justification (MEJ) scale, which includes a wide range of different psychological strategies, indirect and direct. They found a correlation with speciesism and that 'individuals who endorsed the 4Ns were less involved in animal welfare advocacy and were less likely to be moving toward more restrictions with regards to animal product consumption' (Piazza et. al. 2015, p. 123). It is nonetheless unclear if this study has identified anything other than the power of justification and social influence that can be explained by any number of psychological mechanisms as summarised in Rothgerber’s MEJ scale.
Out of all the papers listed at the Carnism Research Database at Beyond Carnism, only two papers provide any empirical testing of Joy's concept, and the findings are of limited usefulness. The 3Ns are subjected to testing in the form of 4Ns, and carnism has been turned into an inventory to measure the ideology. The latter paper, Christopher A. Monteiro, Tamara M. Pfeiler, Marcus D. Patterson and Michael A. Milburn's "The Carnism Inventory: Measuring the Ideology of Eating Animals" was published in Appetite in February 2017.
This paper is the first to attempt to give carnism an rigorous empirical basis. The authors follow Joy to theorise that carnism is a coherent ideological system of which people may or may not be aware, that interspecies prejudice underpins the ideology and that there are such things as specific, ideological forms of 'carnistic defense' and 'carnistic domination'. The paper claims it works to 'integrate prior empirical findings' which, in fact, found no specific forms of defenses or domination, but found probable links between people who have a social domination worldview and those who justify animal consumption.
The carnist inventory (CI) is a self-reporting tool and provides little way to measure the widespread qualities of the ideology given that it found even in its questionnaire sampling that social dominance and defense were two loosely linked but separate measures: no correlation or 'intrapersonal association' was found. The authors note that more 'research is needed to understand the relationship between carnistic beliefs and the behavior of eating meat, and in particular, to understand the extent to which people eat meat because of their endorsement of carnism, or vice versa' (28).
There is then in using CI no way of clearly demonstrating that a belief system named carnism led to eating meat or that it is any causal factor. It may be the 'obvious answer' to refer to socialisation, the authors note that 'processes such as motivated cognition, preference for social hierarchy, and dissonance reduction also seem likely in light of the literature'. In this respect, there are current 'theoretical explanations of why people endorse carnism', but these have still not been ‘empirically tested' in such a way that the concept carnism should be preferred.
In another area of activity, animal advocacy, there is no clear reason why speciesism is not a concept that allows for the same impact and same visibility of carnism and that is, importantly, broader, a point that a rare vegan critic of Joy in the vegan abolitionist movement has made. Another vegan abolitionist, Gary Francione denounces what he calls the ‘invisibility’ position, that is to say, the ‘claim that the ideology that supports animal exploitation is “invisible”’ (Francione 2012). He reproaches this position to ‘relieve us from moral responsibility for our conduct, claiming that if we participate in animal exploitation, it’s because we are being “victimized” by the “invisible” ideology’ (Francione 2012).
In contradiction, as is too often the case in his work and in the broader confusions that misusing psychological terms can create, Francione earlier had described the approach of most people as ‘moral schizophrenia’, and explained that ‘we do not think clearly about our moral obligations to animals” (Francione 2007). We should strive to reject ableism and the inappropriate borrowings from clinical psychology wherever they appear.
It seems that elsewhere many vegans appear simply happy to have someone who represents them in a mainstream setting and who criticises the mentality they oppose so completely. The uncritical absorption of Joy's work persists and, even where Joy is not popularising misinterpretations of ideology, the idea of brainwashing is something that no one really can easily shake in discussing the way people are inculcated from birth in the cult of using and abusing trillions of animals.
Academic critique of Melanie Joy has been minimal, arguably because so few scholars - and even experts in the field of human-animal relationships - have thought it necessary to engage with Joy’s work. Every now and then perspectives are offered. One scholar in the field of food, Paul Arcari suggests some of the flaws in Joy’s argument about carnism:
As well as locating the constitution of carnism in individuals and their beliefs, rather than in social practices, Joy does not problematise how what is deemed natural is constituted more broadly, or, in other words, the process by which something is naturalised, which is through shared understands and social practices they are a part of. Instead, carnism is conceived and approached as a reified ideology associated with 'meat' that is detached from the array of social practices and complexes that shape it.' (Arcari 2019: 104)
It is important to understand the substance of Arcari's critique of Joy's carnism is the way in which it is 'conceived' as an ideology that is non-relational, individualised and that dominates 'social practices and complexes' rather than an ideology that is shaped by social production. This is the essential change in the last few decades that has seen ideology be reconceived as a basic unit of meaning subject to social complexity, rather than a non-relational tyranny that is still preserved in the simplifications that Joy gives us.
The long editorial discussion on the Wikipedia page for Carnism reflects the struggle the editors had in introducing a theory that is 'fringe', and even a ‘professional loose cannon’, not accepted by most disciplines and scholars as an explanation for meat consumption, even where it has popular support as a kind of placeholder concept. Eventually, after much discussion, the editors at Wikipedia appeared to have settled on changing carnism from a theory to a term but the questioning of evidence for the concept continued.
Of course, such a paucity of solid empirical evidence is not unexpected for a relatively recent theoretical concept. But all concepts are put together by social psychologists who make appeals to that authority and not all concepts operate as they are conceptualised like pseudoscientific terms. Much like brainwashing or subliminal advertising, the concept of carnism suffers from a 'gap' between the 'questionable scientific validity' and 'the popular response to it' (Acland 2012: 17).
Carnism and vegan advocacy
How Joy envisages that animal advocates will use the theory of carnism in their advocacy is clearer if we consider the book that preceded How We Love Dogs (2009), the book Strategic Action for Animals: A Handbook on Strategic Movement Building, Organizing, and Activism for Animal Liberation (2008).
These applications are not immediately obvious or consistent in animal liberation, in other forms of animal advocacy, or just in vegan advocacy, but some of the issues with applying the concept of Carnism may be prevented if the two books were read chronologically.
Joy does nonetheless introduce the theory of carnism in the book at an important point, claiming the depth of commitment many have to an ‘identity’ that is built by a ‘paradigm’ that is conditioned by a ‘dominant ideology’. Joy claims that we should have sympathy for and understand ‘meat eaters’ because they ‘are strongly wedded to their identity, or paradigm’; they are under the control of a ‘dominant ideology’. Joy then offers a religious analogy to explain why a meat eater is like they are:
Asking people to stop eating meat is asking not just for a change in their behaviour, but for a radical change in their identity when it comes to how they relate to other animals and to themselves. It’s asking for a paradigm shift, a conversion of sorts, almost as if a Catholic were to try to convert a Jew to Christianity. Given these factors, it’s no wonder carnists can get so defensive.
This is clearly intended as a call for compassion, and a wakeup call for vegan advocates to acknowledge the degree to which they were previously ‘conditioned’.
Joy’s conversion model of course works both ways: not only are people converted to meat eating, they must be converted to veganism.
Central to this model is the idea of a ‘dominant ideology’, a ‘carnistic system [that] rewards conformity and punishes deviation’. Joy then calls for advocates to show compassion for people who are ‘victims’ of carnism: ‘vegan advocates assume that a person’s defensiveness is the result of selfishness or apathy, when in fact it is much more likely the result of systemic and intensive social conditioning’.
It is difficult to see, however, how portraying carnists as lacking the capacity to make free decisions, lacking in authenticity or even pathological truly helps advocates relate to the people given the label carnists in any way that would make a difference. According to Joy, animal liberation activists can break through dissociation and challenge the carnistic paradigm by creating psychological safety.
Joy's advice on strategic communication is useful, and supported by nonviolent protest and communication techniques which have the backing of arguably more empirical evidence than is available for the concept of carnism, but it is hard to see how the concept of carnism leads to this advice or is even useful in advocacy, given the defences it may trigger, and the assumptions that it involves.
Joy elsewhere claims in an interview with Mercy for Animals that it is important to incorporate the concept of carnism into vegan advocacy for the following reasons: (1) it helps us explain and understand the ‘complex psychology’ of carnists; (2) the specific structure of carnism we need to understand or risk ‘fighting blindfolded against an unseen entity’; and (3) our discussion of the issue will be changed if we understand that eating animals is not merely ‘a matter of personal ethics’ but ‘a deeply entrenched belief system’.
Passing over the ableism of the second reason for a moment, that identifies the lack of vision with a strategic error, it’s not entirely clear why or how carnism helps advocacy improve in this areas. Carnism seems less like a ‘complex psychology’ and more like an automatic belief system, as it is portrayed, more akin to brainwashing. If anything, the label dehumanises carnists and locates the natural psychological state with its slated opposite, veganism.
In fact the defences associated with carnism are common psychological mechanisms and vegans employ them too. What could be a moment of recognising our shared mental constructs and the challenge of social change becomes an opportunity to label and pathologise so-called carnists, with little or no evidence to support the label, which leads to the opposite of understanding and empathy.
How this label makes a deeply entrenched ideology visible is an open question that Joy never clearly answers, even as the metaphors of sight – and its opposite, disability – are bandied about by Joy in the manner of an enlightened philosophe. Finally, it is hard to see how understanding eating animals as a belief system in the way that Joy portrays it helps animal advocates. There’s no way that such a belief system can be ‘deprogrammed’, and we do not need a psychological concept to understand that personal choices are political.
Joy's biggest appeal for why it does need its own label has to do with the assumption of a liberation theory that is, unfortunately also ableist and diagnostic: that by naming the ideology we want to counteract, we can make it visible and defeat it. Carnism has been described as "the opposite of veganism". It's an unfortunate conception, because it is extremely difficult to understand an ideology as having an opposite: ideologies appear to create their own parallel worlds of meanings.
Joy has claimed that carnism is a subset of speciesism, a useful descriptive limiter. Whether or not a discussion that focuses on only one subset is useful for making wider institutional prejudice 'visible' is arguable. It's difficult to think of an historical or political precedent where a subset issue of a particular form of discrimination or oppression became conceptualised in this particular way, rather than simply becoming the object of a campaign to address prejudice.
The formulation appears to propose veganism is another ideology: where the ideology of carnism ends, its opposite, veganism, begins? How so? By no means is this a clear basis for a strategy that opposes the negative outcomes of carnism. Carnism has also been described as "a kind of speciesism", or a subset ideology.
Again, the lack of clarity in the concept seems to propose that speciesism as a concept needs this attenuation, but by no means is it obvious that the treatment of animals in agriculture and its accompanying culture - or edibility - requires a special distinct ideological structure. Speciesism would seem enough for advocates to work out how to communicate effectively, in oppositional and in positive ways.
Central to Joy’s concept of carnism as an ideology is the presumption that people who eat meat do so unknowingly endorsing a shared belief system, and that if they only were knowing of this belief system, they may be knowingly cultivate its opposite, veganism.
Carnism is in this respect an invisible ideology, where veganism is visible. But this is not how knowledge or belief works: belief structures are visible and their knowledge is shared. There's nothing invisible about carnism: what people like about meat culture is that it is visible, accessible, permissible and attractive. Why would it not be veganism that needs more visibility in the same way?
Joy’s understanding of ideology seems limited to a psychological plane in which metaphors of seeing and not seeing always surface, and in which the dominant ideology thesis, which we have shown as flawed, is assumed rather than deconstructed. The irony of Joy’s use of ideology seems palpable when Joy moves to intervene in debates over abolitionism and welfare, which appears to be one of the most difficult and intractable disputes to mediate.
Joy warns against confusing ideology and strategy:
When we wrap ideology around strategy we lose the objectivity necessary to develop a sound strategic analysis. For instance, we treat theory as though it were fact, vehemently arguing for an approach based on no empirical evidence whatsoever.
The irony is that Joy has introduced a concept of ideology that does indeed serve to 'wrap ideology around strategy' and to authorise us to 'treat theory as though it were fact'.
Joy understands very keenly the need to take on this advice to show more 'curiosity' and put openness into process, but the process that Joy has adopted in outlining the concept of carnism has resulted in 'an approach based on no empirical evidence whatsoever', and that it has resulted in a loss of 'the objectivity necessary to develop a sound strategic analysis'.
The paucity of empirical evidence for carnism, the effectiveness of such a theoretical concept to Joy's 'liberatory consciousness', and the lack of an objective analysis it invites, is a form of vegan advocacy that animal advocates should resist.
Joy's public statements repeatedly appear to be contradictory and fall into that tendency of the 'wrap' - conflating ideology, theory, fact and analysis - that Joy has elsewhere diagnosed in vegan advocacy. A final key example of where a false concept of ideology can take us is Joy's expressed belief that veganism will one day become the dominant ideology. Joy has otherwise expressed her critique of dominant ideologies, but now veganism is destined to become one, as she told attendees to her workshop.
It's a very strange collapse of the logic that Joy elsewhere claims we should resist, an us vs them or friend and enemy politics: ‘I have no doubt that veganism will displace carnism as the dominant ideology one day. It’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’.’ The same thought is repeated by Joy in interviews: ‘It seems clear to me as someone who has really studied social change and as a psychologist that veganism will replace carnism as the dominant ideology at some time.’
It’s difficult to understand the precise ways in which veganism are replacing carnism, or why the replacement of a dominant ideology is the best way to understand this process, unless this is understood as a simple battle of memes or a paradigm shift rather than a revolutionary struggle. The normative element is very difficult to reconcile with the descriptive element.
At best, carnism acts as ‘a descriptive concept with a normative import’, which is perhaps another way of saying that it describes a norm. Eating meat in other words, isn't simply normal, it's a constructed normality. Why do we need a concept of carnism to make this shift in critical perception, possible? Animal advocates already have a useful concept of speciesism that explains decision making and ethics in detail and provides a paradigm shift to focus concrete actions.
It seems that carnism operates as a way of justifying its opposite, veganism, and a kind of reverse mirror for the prejudices - justified, of course - of veganism.
In other words, carnism provides a kind of enemy image for veganism. It provides a 'descriptive concept' for the enemy of veganism, and a focus for an ideological conflict that vegans must wage. The war begins by repositioning veganism as the normality, the non-ideology, and posit that everyone would be vegan if only for carnism. The key question is, as always, does merely being aware of carnism as an ideology change our habits?
The best value for carnism seems to be in explaining why, for example, people might oppose the exploitation and suffering of all animals and yet still think that cows are more sentient and that their treatment is more morally concerning than how we treat chickens in a far greater scale. In other words, you can be anti-carnism but still speciesist.
That said, I believe that animal advocates should be cautious about adopting the concept of carnism. The social binarism of Joy’s thinking is problematic, but it is the nature of her thinking that has been oppositional. Joy has for many years plugged away at the speciesism of psychology (Shapiro, 1990; Joy 2005), and helped create the now flourishing field of animal-human relations.
Ecofeminists have helped inform Joy's understanding of power over (Macy, 1995) as the source of a problematic human-nonhuman dynamic (Davis, 1995; Fiddes, 1992; Kheel, 1995; Joy 2005). Ecofeminists think of the attempts of humans to dominate and destroy the natural world as based in an unconscious fear of nature, the other, wildness, irrationality, disorder and femininity (Fiddes, 1992). It does not seem obvious why animal advocacy needs the binary dramas of this form of philosophy.
At least one scholar of animal theory has also offered a compelling complication of the way Joy and other advocates use speciesism as an ideology, and the analysis applies to carnism too. Criticising 'the politics of sight' that suggests that by simply seeing our own speciesism we are able to overcome it, Guy Scotton has argued compellingly against not only 'claims that particular psychological patterns are reliably associated with speciesist beliefs, attitudes, and actions' but those that take the path of brainwashing and psychological pathology.
As Scotton puts it: 'claims that speciesism constitutes an overarching disorder, one that shapes both institutions and their participants in ways that are fundamental pathological, threatening mental and social coherence at one and the same time'. Scotton has argued against 'a diagnostic tendency in animal liberation theory and advocacy' that draws on rather than challenges ableism to provide a new social movement with the appearance of health, identity, and coherence.
The frequency of Joy's ableist metaphors that end up in a diagnosis are troubling: 'Despite the falsehood that weave our psychological and emotional safety net, it takes energy to suppress the truth. It takes an ongoing effort to remain blind to what is right in front of us, to stay oblivious to glaring inconsistencies, and to keep our authentic feelings from surfacing' (2009: 82). Elsewhere, Joy claims to be helping carnists face dysfunctional relationships and mental illness. The use and misuse of clinical psychology in animal advocacy, where the standard of evidence is low, is something we should be cautious about.
The assumption of a kind of mental pathology in speciesism is something that the animal liberation movement shares with Joy's model of carnism and, what is more, her model of oppression as a social psychology that is able, on its own, to not only describe, but explain and liberate. Although Joy resists a discourse of shame and does not provide the degree of diagnostic crudeness as other animal theorists, Joy seems to provide flawed diagnosis with the authority of a social psychology, and persists in using the 'ableist' language of carnism and speciesism as barriers to sight.
Joy does little to dispel analogies between carnism and mental illness, disability, or other conditions; in fact her concept can be readily distorted to lend these analogies an air of authority because of the notion that carnism is an individual psychological condition that is halted only by a conversion to veganism. In Powerarchy (2019), the latest book, carnism emerges as part of the same malady that underpins oppression everywhere, and for all time.
One just needs to see this oppression in order to address an underlying cause. Little to no empirical evidence offers us a way to hold these analogies or these claims of an overarching or underlying, causal disorder together, and Joy's latest work offers too many dogmatic assertions rather than effective boundary work and limitations. The problem is that Powerarchy conflates acts of violence on an even grander level than before, tying together any and all oppressions in a social psychology that can explain all and any dysfunction.
We can imagine nobody who thinks veganism is the final oppression in the list of oppressions will disagree with her, but is this a reliable investigation of oppression? As such, her own work is exposable as a conceptually flawed, nonrelational model that has little evidence to support and many drawbacks. As such, its adoption should not be encouraged without significant repurposing.
Another way in which this ‘making visible’ of the oppression that underlies concepts like carnism works is as a form of witnessing and naming. Unfortunately, this too seems to be held back by a troubling form of linguistic essentialism. Nonetheless, it simply appears that Joy passionately believes in the efficacy of the concept of carnism - or the discussion it enables - to address oppression.
As Joy explained in an interview with fellow animal advocate Tobias Leenaert:
I truly believe that if carnism became recognized as an ideology in the mainstream, it would radically and forever change the way we think and talk about eating animals. Carnistic prejudice is the reason that it’s so hard to advocate. Prejudice is an illogical mindset. And oppression and discrimination are institutionalized prejudice. I think it’s virtually impossible to have an objective, truly productive public discussion about eating animals as long as there is limited awareness of carnism. Until we make this system visible, we are dealing with people who are deeply biased, believing themselves to be completely objective. That’s a difficult gap to bridge. That’s one of the reasons why we need to be so strategic all the time. Imagine if that bias were recognized.
The same quality of not 'fully realizing what they're doing', of course, could be said of 'rational, compassionate' vegans. But the 'solution' for Joy is simply 'be as vegan as possible'. The signal these formulations cannot but help send to anyone who is vegan is that they are the solution, simply by dint of being vegan and veganissimo.
Burying themselves in a quest of personal purity, they can explain the behaviour of anyone who is not vegan as ignorance of the solution that is their conversion to veganism.
It is in the midst of such formulations that Joy, who is elsewhere absolutely clear on the danger of dysfunctional relationships, does not appear to show any understanding of the dysfunctional use of carnism that statements such as these seem to repeat and justify.
Animal advocates should be skeptical about whether naming carnism leads to liberation. By naming an ideology, a proper term is always contested. Labels, as we have described elsewhere, do not always provide fertile thinking. The term carnist has always been controversial as it has mutated from an obscure name for an ideology to a term of derogation.
Many forums online regularly face the difficulties of using the term in a non-derogative way. In November 2018, the Reddit group r/DebateAVegan had "a special meta edition of QoTW", or question of the week, asking "Is referring to non-vegans as carnists acceptable or an insult?" The similar derogative analogy that the group related to carnism was calling vegans cult members. The distinctions between brainwashing and ideology blur in the heat of discussion in online forums such as Reddit, and we cannot say that a close analysis of Joy’s work dispels these associations that throw up analogies between religions, mental pathologies, and politics.
Like many vegan forums that choose not to use the concept, r/DebateAVegan discussed the concept’s use and remained undecided, but even answering this question was the subject of a divisive debate, with many vegans and nonvegans alike objecting to the use of the term as a derogation. In other forms of public discussion, it’s difficult to see how the term can be used in the act of naming, rather than simply as a diagnostic term that is never communicated to the ‘patient’, which again is a problematic approach to animal advocacy.
If animal advocates do not accept the argument that simply naming the oppression of animal eating produces productive change, especially with the availability of concepts such as speciesism, they should be especially wary of using a concept that routinely carries the charge of derogation.
Veganism to this day struggles to understand the social practices that make meat eating such a mainstay of society, and veganism prone to high dropout rates. Animal advocates themselves have approached the problem of animal consumption in an exceptionalist way. For example, the correlation between low-socioeconomic status and the status that meat symbolises has been recently understood (EY Chan et. al. 2019) but it is unlikely to become a widely understood or addressed problem among vegan advocates, who have mostly not thought to conduct social benefit analyses of meat and animal products to understand the social benefits that people give up to become vegan and may not be able to substitute.
In the same way that vegans may find plant-based substitutes, why is there not the distinct emphasis and credibility given to finding and creating social substitutes? If the problem is ideological, of course, the emphasis falls on media, intellectual, psychological and even therapeutic interventions, rather than addressing social causes.
If animal advocates should consider resisting the use of concepts like carnism and powerarchy, they should not mistake critiques of the evidence base such as this as a reason not to address social causes and take up the tools that the social sector uses to address social problems.
It’s arguably the major issue with Joy’s work is that it obscures so much solid evidence and analysis in social studies and falls into the kind of exceptionalism that seems to be common throughout animal advocacy. The most important reason to reject Joy’s ideological analysis is, to my mind, because it obscures so much in contemporary social studies that could energise and empower animal advocacy to address social problems.
Conclusion: the next steps
Here are some of the conclusions I have come to in long and somewhat exhaustive review and analysis of Melanie Joy’s works:
There is a need to critically reassess a strong theory of ideology such as the one Melanie Joy proposes. There is no hard evidence to support a strong theory of ideology as an invisible, internally absorbed, brainwashing force that dominates an entire society or that provides a populace with a consistent set of beliefs (the dominant ideology thesis).
This is not to in any way rule out the usefulness of Joy's books, just that their easy half-absorbed adoption by elite social movements who think we need to challenge the brainwashing of the masses should be resisted.
Points 1-2 do not mean we can do without any theory of ideology and go to an opposite extreme. A weak theory of carnism is salvageable, and there is strong evidence for a weak theory of speciesism. By weak, it is meant that ideology is prevalent throughout social practice but can be collectively made and remade. Other social practices, physical and lived reality, material, cultural, historical and political realities are also factors that make oppression impact people and animals differently and that we must always study with curiosity and doubt.
Joy's concept of powerarchy arguably does not seem to provide a workable way forward into a compelling theory of intersectionality or even a platform to which animal advocates need to be drawn, although the need to work on all forms of power systems that create oppression and to collaborate is clearly central to any form of animal advocacy.
If Joy enjoys a popular audience, particularly among vegans, vegetarians and their allies, her work has not gained broad adoption in the fields of social science such as psychology and sociology and Joy’s work seems hampered by the issues and flaws of the model of social change the concepts assume.
The flaws in carnism as a diagnosis and as a way of analysing meat eating require, it is argued, serious critical repurposing for the concept to reclaim its usefulness in either in academic study, in vegan advocacy or in a political context. Whether or not vegans and animal advocates will be willing to accept this argument or undertake this critical labour needed to avoid diagnosis culture remains to be seen.
Factoring in these 6 conclusions, the next steps I suggests are these:
We should not simply reject Joy’s work in its entirely or leave things at half-absorption. It would be a missed opportunity to simply criticise concepts like and carnism and leave it at that.
Rather, we should continue to research social change and the study of animal-human relations in the social sciences. It is in fact research into human-animal behaviour and in social studies that will likely in the future yield some of the highest returns on investment in new programs to address the human-animal violence nexus and provide social replacements for those elements of consuming animals that deserve a closer analysis.
Somewhere between animal liberation, abolition, vegan advocacy, intersectional consistent anti-oppression, effective altruism and welfare animal charities, there seems to be a strong need to find more social change organisations and movements that can take up the best approaches from across the animal advocacy and social sector and continue social, institutional, and political breakthroughs that resist populism.
New paradigms from the social sector that draw together research across human-animal-human relations, such as One Welfare, should be widely disseminated and will help end the exceptionalism of so much vegan and animal as well as human rights and human welfare advocacy. We can look to new forms of understanding social relations and social change to provide much needed collaboration and fresh ideas in evidence-based intervention across the social sector.
So, to conclude, the answer is not to simply shun the social change work that Joy has opened up in a popular way; it is to continue to develop this work in ways that lead us to forms of politics that win over the old spaces of humanism. Transforming the attention of animal advocacy away from purely negative forms of politics, such as removing and destroying so-called carnism, seems to be an important step we are only just beginning to see come onto the scene.
One hope is to shift societies in ways that Joy may consider as ideological: to replace old paradigms with new forms of sentientist or animalist politics. Such a politics could help us build a new social and civil polity, and we cannot underestimate the work of social transformation this would involve. But beginning by adopting new paradigms such sentientism, described by one of its chief proponents as an upgrade of humanism, may work to end exceptionalism and lead us to new practices of one health and interest-based rights.
The important thing is that we move away from diagnosing forms of speciesism, or carnism, and that we turn to more positive ways of collaborating. A new sentientist politics may help us build open social platforms that factor in the interests of all sentient lives.
"Fleshing out Carnism" Part One and Two is written by Beornn McCarthy, founder of Open for Animals and Social Change Leadership Consulting in Melbourne, Australia. For more info or enquiries email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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